It’s 11:30 P.M. on Friday, July 2, 2021, and 69-year-old Matt Floyd lies alone in an empty field changing the tires on his racecar as a deer looks on from a field in darkness about a hundred yards away. The sole light will turn off, and the deer will take over the field soon enough. But this moment belongs to Floyd, who finished second in a bracket race at Speed’s New Hope Dragway outside of Spencer, Indiana.

Speed’s New Hope Dragway held its first race in 1969. Floyd was there — 17 years old and nervous. Back then, the track was a spectacle, as teenagers and adults alike traveled from all around the state to see drivers burn down the track.

The asphalt stayed busy for around 30 years. Melissa Pope, who stood on the top row of the stands for Friday night’s race, remembers when she and her husband, Mike, would make the 30-minute drive from Bloomington to see the races.

“It was bigger back then,” Pope said as she looked back at the parking lot.

Jerry Stewart, the new owner of the speedway, knows the illustrious history of the track and hopes to use it as a measuring stick for his ownership. An Indianapolis-based racer of 35 years, he wants to bring the spectacle back to the rural straight.

“It’s a gift to have this track,” Stewart said.

Stewart, an Indianapolis-based racer, bought the speedway in 2018. The longtime owner was hesitant to sell the track until Stewart came along. Others offered more money, but Stewart won out. He isn’t sure why.

The purchase came as a surprise to his son, Travis. It was a step in a new direction:

“We never had the intention of owning a racetrack. We are racers, and this fell into our lap,” Travis said.

The track is an obligation as much as it is a blessing for the Stewarts.

According to them, many tracks are falling into the hands of large corporations, taking away the charm of a track with a local ownership and racing community.

The Stewarts have put only $3,500 worth of equipment into the track so far, whereas bigger tracks have equipment worth over $70,000 (they said this, I want to call a big track to confirm). Jerry says they make up the difference with “sweat equity.”

When the lights went out, Jerry contacted electricians to see how much it would cost to put up his replacements. The number was too high so he rented a boom truck, and the family put the lights up themselves. The same goes for the fence around the track and the new roof on the control tower.

With cars and trucks lining up for test runs early Friday night, the track equipment went on the fritz.

But the delay wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Jerry drove down the track to manually replace the sensors, racers stood outside of their cars, talking with each other about cars and strategy. The drivers ranged dramatically in age, with several teenagers electing to take on the elders. For the Stewarts, young people are the focus of the revitalization.

Travis thinks teenagers and young adults aren’t as interested in tinkering with cars as they used to be, but Jerry worries that they might decide to take the sport to the open road instead of an established track.

“We can’t eliminate it. It’s been going on for generations. But we certainly can provide a place for them to race safely,” Jerry said.

And the youth are coming. Several young car clubs have used the track for practice and competition.

Stewart doesn’t have the track in the condition he wants yet, but he is grateful for the support the racing community has shown him.

“Some of our winners just leave the money. They tell me to put it back into the track,” Stewart said.

The night’s races officially started with a drivers’ meeting by the concession stand, which is a one-counter affair managed by Tammy Stewart, Jerry’s wife. 

Jerry talked with the drivers about the format and then apologized about what he saw as the shortcomings of the evening: the initially faulty equipment, the overgrown grass, and the late start.

The drivers didn’t mind.

“There a lot of memories here, and a lot of history too. I’m just glad they are keeping it going,” Floyd said before he took to the track for a practice round.

Eventually, Jerry’s daughter, Patricia, who manages the control room, cut in on his rambling.

“We need to get going,” she said while making a “wrap it up” hand motion. 

The National Anthem played, drivers got in their vehicles and Travis took the microphone to shout the magic words:

“Let’s Race!” 

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